State's Highest Court To Rule On Juror Dismissal

Download Audio
A view of the John Adams Courthouse, where the SJC makes its rulings. (mcritz/Flickr)
A view of the John Adams Courthouse, where the SJC makes its rulings. (mcritz/Flickr)

Should a judge be allowed to dismiss a prospective juror for expressing the view that the criminal justice system treats young black men unfairly?

The state Supreme Judicial Court is being asked to rule on that question. It's part of an appeal in the case of defendant Quinton Williams – who was convicted of drug possession last year in Brockton – in which the judge dismissed a prospective juror who said she felt the system was rigged against young black men in a legal brief.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, along with several other organizations and some former judges, argue that the dismissal was wrong. Among the judges is former state Supreme Judicial Court Justice Geraldine Hines, who was the first black woman to serve on the state's highest court.

Hines joined Morning Edition to explain the appeal. Read the transcript below:

The following interview has been lightly edited.

Bob Oakes: In this case the prospective juror was a woman who said she worked with young black teenagers convicted of drug crimes, and she stated her opinion that the justice system was rigged.

Geraldine Hines: That view is absolutely correct. As has been empirically demonstrated — stops and arrests, trial and punishment — in all of those categories the evidence demonstrates that people of color are treated more harshly than whites. If people who have that view are not able to sit on juries, I think it compromises the fairness and integrity of the jury system.

So part of what you're saying is we have to understand that people are human and have opinions whether they’re jurors or not.

A variety of opinions and views need to be brought to the jury process. And this juror indicated that yes, she understood how the system worked. But at the same time she was prepared to hear the evidence fairly and impartially. It just seems to me totally unfair and inappropriate to exclude people like that from the jury process while insisting that people who believe something that is essentially untrue — that the system is fair — that only people with that point of view would be allowed to serve.

The prosecution argues this juror gave contradictory answers, saying, “It's an abuse of discretion to impanel a juror who will not state unequivocally that he or she will be impartial.” Why is that argument flawed?

I think that that is requiring something that's not necessary. Typically, the answer that a judge will get from a juror is, “I think I can be fair.” And generally speaking that's acceptable. But in this case I think the judge took the point of view that anybody who thinks the system is weak cannot, regardless of what they say, be fair. And that's the nub of the issue.

Beyond this case, what happens if the court allows trial judges to strike jurors who hold the view that the criminal justice system is rigged?

I think it will result in a lack of confidence in our jury system. This is part of a very complicated process of rooting out bias in the criminal justice system. One way to do that is to prove that we have confidence in the way our jury system works. And we don't have that confidence if everybody who sits on a jury has to pledge their allegiance to the fairness of the jury system.

This segment aired on September 20, 2018.

Headshot of Bob Oakes

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



More from WBUR

Listen Live